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The Fight for Glasgow's East End

We spoke to the Labour and SNP candidates battling it out over Brexit, Scottish independence and potholes.

by Francisco Garcia; photos by Samuel Temple
05 December 2019, 9:32am

Kate Watson campaigning in Glasgow.

It's a Tuesday afternoon in Glasgow's East End and the rain has been pelting sideways for quite some time. Kate Watson, Labour's parliamentary candidate for Glasgow East, is working the doors on a long suburban street in Shettleston, chatting cheerfully to anyone who opens up for long enough. Aside from Kate and her team, the area is almost deserted due to the weather. On a day like this, it's occasionally difficult to remember this is one of the most closely contested and volatile seats in the UK.

Its recent electoral history has been unusually dramatic. For decades, this was the inner chamber of Labour's working class Scottish heartland – at least, until 2008, when the SNP's John Mason took the seat in a by-election, achieving a 26 percent swing in the process to shock the Labour candidate Margaret Curran. The general election of 2010 saw Curran comprehensively retake Glasgow East for the party amid premature talk of old political certainties restored.

It's fair to say that subsequent events haven't quite mapped out that way. The run-up to the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum set off an earthquake that obliterated Labour's historic dominance of the city, with the now infamous pro-Union "vow" interpreted by many as an inexcusable cosying up to the Tories. That – along with the general sense of a deep rooted malaise in Scottish Labour – heavily contributed to the electoral evisceration of 2015 in which a buoyant SNP took 56 of the 59 seats in the country.

nathalie mcgarry
Kate Watson

Glasgow East was won by Nathalie McGarry, a bright young politician and one of the founders of Women For Independence. Before the year was out, it was reported that McGarry was being charged with embezzling funds from the group and had resigned the SNP whip, a saga that eventually culminated in her being jailed for 18 months in June of 2019. The party put up 27-year-old local lad David Linden in 2017, and though few predicted an easy ride it still came as a jolt when the party's lead over Labour evaporated from 10,000 votes to just 75 on an extraordinary evening that saw Scotland's political map reconfigured for a second time in two years. However, it was Conservative rather than Labour gains that made most of the headlines across Scotland.

Kate Watson was Linden's Labour opponent then, as now. As we walked through Shettleston, she outlined how surreal it felt. The 2017 Labour manifesto was a draw for voters hungry for something more ambitious and left-wing in scope, and a far cry from the tired Third Way consensus that had long dominated Scottish Labour. Though for Kate – herself an experienced backroom Labour player, and not always an obvious Corbynite – it's something she's keen to discuss. For her, the key message is that this is a seat that desperately needs to see an immediate end and reversal of the last decade of austerity that has ravaged a seat that was already one of the most deprived in the UK.

Glasgow East has long been one of the country's poorest constituencies, with high rates of child poverty and several wards that appear regularly at the bottom of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Community centres have shuttered, benefits have been slashed, housing is increasingly expensive and precarious for many. These facts are not the cliches of the inner-city, but a deep set matrix of issues that have have been well publicised and pored over by scores of journalists and academics. "People here want to focus on what really matters to them, with resources so stretched," Kate told me between conversations on the doorstep.

Exactly what these concerns are varies on who you talk to in the constituency. National media coverage often uncritically presents Scotland as a uniformly Remain bulwark against a rabidly Brexiteer England, though Glasgow East was surprisingly tight, with 46 percent of voters backing Leave in 2016, double that in nearby Glasgow North, despite both having voted for Scottish independence. It perhaps helps to explain why the SNP vote wobbled so dramatically in 2017, as voters in the constituency reacted ambivalently to the SNP's unequivocally pro-Remain stance.

david linden snp
David Linden.

I managed to catch David Linden at his campaign office just before he was due out canvassing. There's little doubt of his commitment and passion for the area, even if he sticks tightly to the SNP lines on Brexit and Scottish Independence as the key issues in the fight for the seat. David told me he considers the Labour vote to be "very soft", though he stressed there is zero room for complacency.

"[There's no doubt] that's because the Labour Party have equivocated on things like Brexit and Scottish independence. People are pretty cheesed off about that now," he said. "These are the two biggest issues that people are talking about on the doorstep, and are the two biggest issues in Scotland."

He believes the lack of clarity will be fatal to Labour's chances in Scotland. "As far as I understand it, they'll go back to Brussels and negotiate a new deal, one that they apparently feel so little confidence in that they won't even recommend people to vote for it. That doesn't seem credible to me.

"Labour also found themselves campaigning with the Tories in 2014 against Scottish Independence, telling people that London would make better decisions [for Scotland] than Edinburgh would. I think there's a hangover from that which makes it difficult for them, while the SNP have a consistent message on both of these issues: escape the Brexit carry-on and give Scotland the right to choose its own future. I'm fully expecting we hold this seat with an increased majority."

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It's not a line that Kate or the other Labour campaigners I speak to agree with. "People are sick to the back teeth of hearing about Brexit," says Kate. "A lot of people don't feel like it impacts their life day-in, day-out, though it will obviously have a massive impact on the area. They want to talk about food banks, the 7,500 kids in poverty, the 15,000 people struggling on Universal Credit [in the constituency].

"There's also a lot of council issues that come up, like potholes in the street, etc. It might not sound important next to children in poverty, but if it's damaging your car and you need that to get into work, then it's huge. People haven’t forgotten that the SNP have been in power for 12 years [here in Scotland]."

David had also brought up the spectre of Universal Credit, but was keen to pour cold water over Labour positioning themselves as the anti-austerity party. "I'm not sure it's always matched by action," he said. "Look at Wales as well, where the neoliberal consensus [in the party] seems to be much stronger."

glasgow east school

Indeed, the party’s decline in Scotland was a complicated, protracted affair characterised by creeping neglect and decay. But Kate is keen to outline how things have changed and how well some of the manifesto pledges are cutting through. For what it's worth, YouGov's projection has the SNP sitting on a 7 percent advantage, lower than anywhere else in the city, including Labour-held Glasgow North East.

There is another major concern for both campaigns: disillusionment. The seemingly constant diet of electioneering can induce fatigue as well as strong feelings, with voter turnout having decreased from 60 to 54 percent between the last two General Elections. One woman I spoke to outside a cafe spoke for several of those I interviewed with an eye roll and a weary aside at the prospect of yet another vote, with nothing seemingly changing or improving. Others came down hard in favour of either SNP or Labour, inspired by the prospect of IndyRef2 (including an encounter with one middle-aged man who would prefer "suffering in independent Scotland to anything else in the UK"), or enthusiasm for some of the pledges in the latter's manifesto.

Life is difficult for many in the constituency, with most of its key social concerns having gone untreated or worsening in the last decade, despite the rate of political upheaval. It would take a rare confidence to predict the election result, with the narrowest of margins lying between failure and victory in Glasgow East, a seat where whatever changes, the more things seem to stay the same.

@Ffranciscodgf / wedoodd.com

Ahead of the 2019 General Election, VICE UK has been travelling to key marginals with large student populations, to meet the people living there and find out what's most important to them. Read more from our Swing Party series here.

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